Composer Alec Roth founded London’s Royal Festival Hall Gamelan Programme and the South Bank Gamelan Players in 1988. In 1989 he spent two months in Vancouver at the invitation of Martin Bartlett, working with the Vancouver Community Gamelan on the music for a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the SFU’s Centre for the Arts. In 2010 he sent us this self-interview.
How did you start composing for gamelan?
I first went to Java in 1980. This was when ASKI (now STSI) was still located within the kraton (royal palace) in Solo. I lived in a room which doubled as a classroom – so I had to be up early each day! One morning there were some strange sounds outside my door and I looked out to find a group of students working on a new piece. They invited me to join them and I soon became absorbed in a creative process completely new to me. Although I had gone to Java to study traditional gamelan music, this encounter was to prove a new beginning for me as a composer.
What attracted you to The Tempest?
The Tempest has always been my favourite Shakespeare play because of its use of music. The first time I heard a gamelan, its magical sounds brought to mind the play, and in particular, Caliban’s words:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.
The earliest known European reference to the music of Java is found in the logbook of the Golden Hind which, during its famous circumnavigation of the globe, visited the island in 1580. It describes the music as being “of a very strange kind, yet the sound was pleasant and delightful.” The fact that it was mentioned at all in a ship’s log indicates that the music must have made a powerful impression. We might easily imagine veterans of Drake’s voyage on shore-leave in the taverns of Southwark, spinning their sea-yarns of a far-away isle with strange yet delightful music – and a young Will Shakespeare avidly taking note. Pure conjecture, of course, but there is something in Caliban’s description which rings a lot of bells with Westerners encountering the music of the gamelan for the first time. However, it is important to remember that in The Tempest the music is not merely incidental or decorative, but has a central structural role in the action of the play, since it is the means by which Prospero exercises his power. Whenever he is conjuring up the spirits or casting a spell he does so through music, and there is always a musical cue or reference in the text.
How did you come to compose the music for the play?
I was fortunate to be a member of the UK’s first performing gamelan group, the English Gamelan Orchestra under the leadership of Neil Sorrell. In 1983 we undertook a national tour which included both traditional and new works. I composed two of Ariel’s songs, “Come Unto These Yellow Sands” and “Full Fathom Five,” for this. But my ambition was always to create the music for a full staging of the play.
When I attended the First International Gamelan Conference, held during Expo 86 in Vancouver, I had the good fortune to meet the late Martin Bartlett – a wonderful man – who was then Professor of Music at Simon Fraser University. At the end of Expo he persuaded the Indonesians to leave behind their Javanese gamelan and so began Vancouver’s gamelan programme. Martin heard my Tempest songs and asked me if I would like to do the music for a full-scale production of the play. Of course I jumped at the opportunity, and spent a most blissful two months in Vancouver in 1989, culminating in a run of performances from the 8th to 18th of March at SFU’s Centre for the Arts.
It was a very ambitious production with 15 or 16 musicians, and the music was literally central to the play – the gamelan was placed in the middle of the stage and the set designed around it. The musicians were Ariel’s spirits and took part in the action. As well as composing a large amount of new music I used traditional wayang (Javanese shadow-theatre) forms such as srepegan and sampak, and arranged the overall musical structure in the traditional wayang form of three pathet (pathet equals tonality or mode). Remarkably, the play seemed to fall naturally into this structure.
My studies in Java coincided with an extraordinary period of experimentation in gamelan composition. Some of the techniques I saw there I adopted in the Tempest music. For example, in the “ding dong bell” section of “Full Fathom Five” the musicians take the pencon (small gongs) from a bonang, turn them upside down and strike the rims. This produces a completely different, bell-like sound. By pouring a little water inside and moving it around, the pitch of the sound can be bent, creating a mysterious ‘underwater’ effect.
Your music has been performed by many groups – do the results differ greatly?
Yes, that’s what’s so interesting about composing for gamelan. You have to take into account that the work may change each time. Whenever you take a piece to another gamelan or another group, it has to be re-worked to some extent (the process of realisation of a particular piece of gamelan music is referred to as garap – literally “working”). In every performance the personality of the gamelan comes out (each set of instruments has its own unique sonic character and tuning – what the Javanese call embat), and also that of the group of musicians, with their own particular skills, experience and imagination. I like to think of compositions as recipes. Each time they are cooked, the ingredients, spices, utensils, cooking times and temperatures may all be slightly different, so even though it is the same dish, hopefully the taste is always fresh and satisfying. For me, that’s the essence of composing within the gamelan tradition and why I love it so much.